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Regional shifts give Erdogan's Turkey plenty to ponder

In the wake of the Arab Spring, sticking to his guns may work against the Turkish leader.

The Arab Spring initially caught Turkey's AKP government by surprise, but became a welcome development by the end of 2011. Before the year was out, the AKP was able to side with the revolutionary wave sweeping through Arab streets and was one of the first decisive international actors in the developing situations in Egypt and Libya.

In Syria, Turkey joined its Western allies to call on Syria's embattled leader to leave. In an extraordinary move, the AKP government took an actively hostile stance against a neighbour for the first time since the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923.

In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government found allies in the newly elected governments. In late 2011, Mr Erdogan's visit to these three states met with enthusiastic crowds that were seen as a testament to Turkey's rising regional status.

Israel, on the other side, was worried, seeing that the stability provided by dictatorships around the region was collapsing. In Cairo, Israel watched as its embassy was raided. In Sinai, radical elements rose and it contemplated how the Islamist government of Egypt would try to change the balance in Gaza.

By mid-2012, various Syrian opposition fighters began "liberating" big chunks of northern Syria. Clashes became more deadly in Damascus, threatening the regime. The western intelligence agencies leaked reports indicating that Bashar Al Assad's regime was about to fold.

But potential regime change in Syria - with some type of Islamist government in place of Mr Al Assad - was an idea that Israel never felt comfortable with.

The Turkish model of democracy was one of the most discussed topics of 2012. Relations with Arabian Gulf states like the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were good, especially since all opposed Mr Al Assad, even though their tactics varied.

A series of dramatic events have, however, suddenly changed the AKP's standing.

First the Assad regime appeared to be much more resilient than expected. Then, Turkey's F4 jet was downed, over 50 people were killed in the border city of Reyhanli by twin car bombs and the number of refugees reached almost a half-million. Militarily, the Assad regime gained some grounds in the western part of Syria thanks to the spineless policies of the US and EU. Russia, Iran and Hizbollah, meanwhile, poured resources into saving Mr Al Assad.

Inside Turkey, large protests against the AKP government spread across the country. The protests made Mr Erdogan taste his first serious defeat in his three- term premiership. Turkey's police forces' brutal treatment of the largely peaceful protesters attracted great condemnation from foreign governments.

Unable to accept the fact that a significant segment of Turkey's society was unhappy with his posturing, Mr Erdogan and his government resorted to using some crazy conspiracy theories to explain away the Taksim Square protests as a plot hatched by foreign powers that are united against Turkey's rise.

While the protests in Turkey continued, Egypt's Islamist president was toppled by a popular uprising, backed by a military intervention.

Mr Erdogan took Mohammed Morsi's fall personally and declared that the deposed president was still his president and refused to answer phone calls from Egypt's interim government.

Turkey's conservative AKP government suddenly seemed like a lone voice as its relations with western and eastern neighbours weakened at a time when Israel's fortunes seemed to look up.

Considered as one of the largest military threats against Israel, Syria's military forces began to melt down after two years of fighting. Israel conducted almost half a dozen military strikes inside Syria to take out Hizbollah targets this year.

After Mr Morsi was removed, Israel felt much more confident to conduct air strikes into the Sinai Peninsula, reportedly for the first time in four decades.

Israel also agreed to launch the Middle East Peace Process via US mediation, another favourable development for its standing, even if it sought to undermine those talks before they had begun. Israel's US ambassador told me in a recent interview that "the relations between Israel and the Egyptian military are now quite good."

At the same time, the Ankara government was having a hard time finding allies in the region, a new demand for Kurdish autonomy, in northern Syria, just south of Turkey, added more fuel to its own historic fears.

There is a long election season looming for Turkey in which local elections (March 2014), the first popular presidential elections (August 2014) and the general elections (June 2015) will be held. In a country that has been further polarised by the recent protests, and has begun to feel lonely in the region, Mr Erdogan will be hard-pressed to make tough policy choices inside and outside of the country.

Mr Erdogan would do well to understand that accepting mistakes and changing course can be read as a sign of a self-confidence in Western democracies; whereas sticking to "with us or against us" policies might become a double-edged sword that could further weaken the AKP's international standing.

Only time will tell whether self-confidence or stubbornness will prevail in Mr Erdogan's world of politics.

 

Ilhan Tanir is a Turkey analyst, who writes extensively on Turkey-US relations, Syria and issues related to the wider Middle East

On Twitter @WashingtonPoint

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